We explore barley wine, an often misunderstood style that warms the throat—and heart.
Illustration by David Witt
As much as many of us wish it weren’t so, winter is on its way. Already there is a chill in the air and the long days are quickly losing their battle with the night. But the inevitable arrival of bitter cold and snow isn’t just a reason for despair. It’s also an excuse to break out the really big beers—those snifter-sippers that offer pleasing warmth to ward off the frost. Among the biggest of these is barley wine. Rich and complex, with alcohol percentages soaring into the teens, barley wine provides the perfect antidote to cold-weather cabin fever.
The beer that we today call barley wine has its historical roots in England. The brewing of strong beer on the Island goes back at least to the 15th-century. When hops were introduced there in the 1400s, their preservative qualities allowed the landed gentry to make high-alcohol brews on their estates that were meant to be kept, often for several years. In villages and towns, commercial brewers sold strong versions of all kinds of beers from pale ales to porters. The term “barley wine” was variously applied to all of them through the centuries, indicating that it originally referred simply to beer that achieved wine-like alcoholic strength.
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The first beer to be labeled barley wine by its producer was Bass No. 1 in 1870, a hefty version of that brewery’s famous Burton ale. The early production of barley wine–type beers was linked to the English parti-gyle brewing method, in which successive runnings of wort from the grist were used to make beers of different strengths. The first running produced a thick, high-sugar wort appropriate for making strong beers. With each successive running the grains were re-mashed with water, creating more dilute worts that could be used to brew small beer or blended back to make beers with various alcohol contents.
Today, “barley wine” has come to mean a particular style of beer. No longer is it simply wine-strength beer. For example, we don’t call imperial stouts or Belgian strong dark ales barley wine even though they are nearly identical in strength. In the current conception, barley wine is essentially a very strong pale ale of either the American or English type. The grain bills for pale ale and barley wine are similar—basically two-row pale malt with small amounts of caramel or other character malt to add complexity. The relative bitterness of the two barley wine sub-styles falls within a fairly narrow band, though each fills out the extremes on either end.
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